Yes, I know that’s a lot of quote marks for the title of a blog post so let me explain.
There was a bit of an earthquake in central London today as the General Synod of the Church of England (effectively its national parliament) refused to “take note” of a report given to them by the Bishops [pdf] in conclusion to the “Shared Conversations” exercise that the Church of England has been undergoing for a number of years in order to make progress on the vexed question of same-sex marriage. The report was criticised from both poles of the debate. For the liberals, the bishops’ reaffirmation of an orthodox understanding of marriage and sexual ethics (para. 26(a) in the report). For many conservatives the bishops’ desire to allow “maximum freedom” under current guidelines (paras. 22-23) was nothing but an undermining of their statements about upholding orthodoxy; how can one uphold a Biblical sexual ethic and at the same time in any way bless same-sex unions?
You can read the whole thing here…
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So the bishops took the extraordinary step of presenting their report to General Synod in a “take note” debate. There was no need to do so but they (wisely, to my mind) recognised that on this most contentious of issues they needed to take the General Synod with them. No sooner was the report and accompanying debate announced than loud voices on both sides began to argue that Synod should not “take note” in order to signal a rejection of the pathway that the bishops had chosen.
In the lead up to the vote there was nothing short of furious campaigning on all sides. The liberals’ campaign was clear to see from bodies such as the newly-amalgamated “One Body, One Faith” who urged their supporters to vote against the motion and to call their General Synod reps to do the same.
Within the conservative camp there was also an inclination by many to vote against the motion for the reasons outlined above. Those I spoke to in the days leading up to the vote took no pleasure in this position but were resigned to a split in the church as being inevitable and longed for the bishops to stop papering over the cracks. As a result we began to see an unprecedented move by more conservative bishops to encourage a “yes” vote as (it was explained) a last-ditch attempt to hold everything together. There was a great danger, it was explained, that if the take note vote failed then the fissures would rupture with not a small number of bishops being prepared to take a contrary position in future. It has to be said that this argument appears to have been somewhat successful if the noises key conservatives were making in the last 24 hours were any indication.
So what was the result? The vote was taken by houses and split as follows:
The bishop who voted against was Coventry, who (it is now already widely accepted) voted no by accident.
And there you have it. A split Church of England which has voted against taking note of the bishops’ report, thereby ensuring it cannot be further debated in this current synod (until 2020). The bishops will now go back and, presumably, prepare another report that may have a different flavour.
But that’s not the half of it. If the conservative bishops’ warnings are correct we can now expect to see the collegiality of the House of Bishops begin to fracture well beyond the isolated crack that is Alan Wilson in Buckingham. To Wilson’s credit he at least had the chops to say what he believed. At the moment we have a set of bishops, some of whom are by conviction opposed to orthodox teaching and yet who continue to (at least nominally) support it. No wonder the liberals are frustrated. But they may now break ranks.
One last thought. The bishops really can’t complain about this result. It is they who are ultimately responsible for recruiting, training, ordaining, supporting, leading and (if necessary) disciplining their clergy. That there has been a more laissez-faire approach by them in recent years on these matters is now well-documented. While there have been some occasions where discipline has been carried out, there are many more moments when they could have stood up and spoken, withheld Communion, said no to ordination and so on. But they didn’t. Blessings of same-sex unions are allowed to pass with not so much as an irritated tut. Bishops attend and endorse services that promote either explicitly or implicitly a rejection of orthodox teaching on marriage. Clergy who hold heterodox views are promoted to higher office. Put simply, there has been a concerted effort by revisionist clergy to put “facts on the ground” and the bishops appear to have not resisted the move with many of them effectively supporting it. As Sam Allberry put it so well in his contribution to the GS debate, we want bishops who genuinely believe that what they wrote in the report is good news to be proclaimed to everyone.
And now those same clergy who the bishops allowed to do what they wanted have done what they wanted. They really can’t complain. Blaming the conservatives who may have voted not to take note is to look in the wrong direction for an explanation as to how this happened.